By Michael Schmidt

The former executive secretary of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa, who blew the whistle on Icasa chairperson Paris Mashile for alleged dereliction of duty and sleeping on the job, is prepared to defend her story in court if need be.

Shameen Naidoo told the Saturday Star this week: "I stand by my report, and if I have to say it in a court of law, I will do so and I will call witnesses who saw that it happened; 12 to 15 people witnessed Mr Mashile sleeping in his office. You can't sue me for telling what I observed. I have freedom of speech under the constitution."

The regulator, already facing major restructuring and workload challenges, has been torn apart in recent months by bitter infighting that has seen CEO Jackie Manche suspended after R110 000 allegedly went missing from a safe, four of its five general managers quit, and three of its seven-member council prepare to pack their bags.

Icasa denied this week, in the wake of a Financial Mail story entitled "Mashile's mess", that it had "imploded - but the government is concerned at the parlous state of the constitutionally established body because it is crucial to its attempts to bring down South Africa's over-inflated phone and Internet charges.

Its embattled chairperson, Mashile, did not return calls at the time of going to press, but Icasa spokesperson Jubie Matlou said Mashile would take legal advice on whether to sue anyone over the leaking of a report by Naidoo, Mashile's former secretary, to the media.

Naidoo joined Icasa's forerunner, the SA Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (Satra), in 1997, where she worked as executive secretary to chairperson Nape Maepa, and continued working for the authority when it was merged with the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) in 2000 to form Icasa.

She later served as executive secretary to Icasa acting CEO Gerhard Petrick - but Petrick left and she fell out with then-councillor Mashile after she and fellow employee Sean Rankin were appointed as his support staff.

Naidoo claimed in her exit report that from the outset "Mashile made it very clear he wasn't happy to 'inherit' the staff of past councillors".

Financial Mail reporter Duncan McLeod wrote that Mashile admitted as much, saying that although there was initially no hostility between himself and his support staff, "he just didn't talk to them".

Matlou admitted that in its five years of existence Icasa had failed to knit together its own corporate culture from apartheid-era Satra and democratic-era IBA staff. This, Matlou said, was the root of the low morale at Icasa.

Naidoo's report went on to say that Mashile "did very little Icasa work, if any. He would come to work whenever he felt like it, take off his shoes, and on many occasions fell off to sleep in his office during office hours …"

Mashile has denied Naidoo's charges, claiming there was a campaign to oust him. But Naidoo said that while she had no personal axe to grind with Mashile, he needed to act responsibly while working in the public interest.

Both Naidoo and Matlou agreed that under Icasa's in-house policy, she was required to draw up the confidential exit report after resigning from the body.

Mashile complained that she and Rankin had, by using his letterheads to try to get Petrick elected to parliament last year, turned his office into a "campaign headquarters", leaving many with the impression that he was not as politically unpartisan as his post required.

Naidoo denied leaking the report to the media. Matlou said Mashile would take legal advice on whether to sue anyone for defamation only once it had been established who had leaked the report.

Matlou denied that the senior staff exodus had injured Icasa's operational efficiency: "In reality, the foot soldiers are the managers and senior managers. We still have those people and they are still delivering; we are not suffering paralysis."

Technically, the government is not really able to sort out the mess: Communications Minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri had her hands tied in April by President Thabo Mbeki when he sent her Icasa Amendment Bill back to parliament, apparently because it gave her unconstitutional powers to hand-pick Icasa councillors.

Communications Department spokesperson Albi Modise said those who had accused the minister of trying to meddle in Icasa were now begging her to do so because of the mass exodus of senior managers, but he said the government, while "concerned" about the state of the regulator, would "respect the independence of Icasa".

But the pain is not yet over for Icasa: Matlou admitted that the pending merger of 25 staff from Satra with Icasa, plus the urgent implementation of a raft of new legislation, would involve massive restructuring and a bigger licensing and policy workload.

And the Icasa Amendment Bill, if passed, will give more power to Mashile to break deadlocks in the council, making his post more sought-after - and more hotly contested.